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Brexit could lead to better broadband - but don’t bet on it

27/09/17

Research on the implications of the UK exit from the EU for digital citizens finds opportunities - but few signs that the government is serious about seizing them

Brexit could unlock opportunities for the public sector to spread local broadband and mobile services, according to an influential digital policy adviser: one area in which it could "enhance digital outcomes for citizens and consumers" concludes Brexit: Implications for Digital Citizens and Consumers, published by the Carnegie UK Trust.

Union Jack flag in skyThe report’s author, William Perrin, is a former Downing Street Policy Unit official credited with thinking up the last Labour Government’s Power of Information programme and an influential figure on the local democracy and open data scene.

His report is carefully politically neutral but contains implicit criticism of the Government’s priorities in negotiations for the future relationship with the EU. “I put my remain hat to one side and apply cold flannel of 20 years work on communications policy,” Perrin tweeted.

A central conclusion of the report is that “a more ambitious approach by government is likely to be required, setting out a vision for how Brexit can actually enhance digital outcomes for citizens and consumers in the UK”.

Rural possibility

On rural broadband, Perrin notes that Brexit could allow the Government to become more involved, but it would have to weigh carefully the costs and benefits.

“Currently, local authorities in the UK have largely decided that they cannot offer telecoms services where there is competitive provision of services,” he states. This follows a landmark European court ruling against the City of Prague’s plan to create a broadband network in competition with commercial providers.

“The rigidity and substantial burden of seeking state aid approval means that councils find themselves lacking flexibility when different solutions are required,” the report says. However pulling out of EU court jurisdiction “could unlock opportunities for the public sector to get more closely involved in local broadband and mobile issues”.

The snag, he adds, is that local authorities’ capabilities in managing telecoms schemes have so far proved to be “uneven”.

Data demands

On data protection, a key area where Whitehall is aiming for continuity with the EU through the Data Protection Bill, Perrin warns of “timing complications”. The bill will be intensely scrutinised by a vigorous data lobby, he says.

“It’s possible, if somewhat ambitious, to get a bill into law by 25 May 2018 and unlikely that it would be tested in the courts for some time after that. So whilst one could say that there is an EU/GDPR compliant regime in place in the UK, one will not be able to say that it has been tested to work.”

On broader policy, Perrin is critical of the decision to delegate discussions on Brexit to a subgroup of the newly constituted Digital Economy Council. “It is unclear why Brexit issues have been delegated to a junior group,” he states.

Moreover, these groups are also closed, with no agendas or minutes published. “Policymakers need consumer input from industry and consumer groups for trade negotiators to achieve the best possible deal post-Brexit for the digital sector. To that end, it would seem sensible that the Digital Economy Council and its subgroups are expanded to include consumer voices around the table.

Innovation and risk

“There are opportunities for the UK to be a place for digital innovation post-Brexit, bringing new products and services to citizens, but this requires careful public policy management to ensure an appropriate balance is struck between innovation and risk.”

“Outside the EU, Britain will have more flexibility and a shorter decision making chain when it comes to focusing on, and dealing with, new challenges and opportunities thrown up by the digital sector. The improved flexibility and speed could give the UK competitive advantage over the much larger EU and the heavily deregulatory trans-Atlantic partners.”

“Brexit presents an opportunity to diverge slightly, or at least evolve on a slightly different path from the EU Digital Single Market path, on certain issues. Moreover, it could do so in such a manner that, in my view, might be welcomed by the EU in the medium term if they prove successful in the UK.”



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